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June 28, 2009

A New Ontario Harris In The Making

Reuel S. Amdur

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June 27 is the date of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s leadership convention.

There are four MPP’s in the running: Christine Elliott and Frank Klees, on the more moderate wing of the party, and Tim Hudak and Rudy Hillier on the hard right. Hudak is thought to be the one to beat, with a majority of caucus and a number of federal MP’s who were formerly his Ontario caucus comrades backing him. He may have lost some ground to Elliott, whom an IPSOS poll found to be more popular.

In keeping with his right-wing image, he has the full support of former Tory Premier Mike Harris. Hudak’s wife, Deb Hutton, was Harris’ executive assistant. So before going into greater detail on Hudak let’s take a look at Harris’ legacy.

Following an electoral strategy largely based on a campaign against welfare fraud, a campaign designed by Jamie Watt, Harris imposed a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of welfare fraud. As a result of his harsh policy, Kimberly Rogers, a college student on Ontario Works, was convicted of welfare fraud and placed under house arrest. She committed suicide. Watt, who had himself been convicted of forgery and fraud, was prevented from taking government appointments which Harris sought to make because of the backlash, in spite of Harris’ urging that he be given another chance. No lifetime ban for Harris’ favored crooks.

Then there was another death in which Harris played a role. When Indians occupied Ipperwash Park, Harris told a meeting called to address the situation, including an OPP officer reluctant to take an aggressive approach, that he wanted the "f .. Indians" out of the park. In the ensuing encounter, Dudley George was shot and killed.

Harris’ love of small government was also instrumental in making possible the Walkerton tragedy, whose water supply was contaminated by E-coli bacteria, causing illness and more deaths, this time among the town’s inhabitants. Harris’ government had cut the budget of the Ministry of the Environment by 42% and ended the Drinking Water Surveillance Program. In his campaign website, Hudak gives prominence to Harris’ endorsement.

Hudak has lived in the Niagara Region except for time as an undergraduate at the University of Western Ontario and a sojourn to the University of Washington for his master’s in economics. He served in various positions in cabinets of Tory Premiers Harris and Ernie Eves. In opposition, he held posts as critic, including finance critic.

Many of the changes Hudak proposes are troubling.

He would eliminate the Human Rights Tribunal, leaving complaints to be handled by the courts. He favors forcing a secret ballot in all cases of union certification. Hudak also wants to be tougher on crime and wants to introduce various tax cut measures, while all the while balancing the budget. Let’s look at these positions.

If the Human Rights Tribunal is eliminated, cases will have to go through the courts. Courts are already backlogged to such an extent that some serious criminal cases are actually being thrown out by judges. To avoid more mistrials that would follow the abolition of the Tribunal Hudak would need to put big bucks into a major expansion of the court system. Yet he wants to keep taxes low and avoid deficit spending.

Similarly, tough-on-crime means a significant increase in expenditures on jails. Budgets in some American states have been crippled by tough sentencing legislation. It is time to re-think the system of corrections with greater emphasis on prevention and on diversion. One thinks of native sentencing circles and victim-offender reconciliation programs, for instance.

A secret ballot for union recognition in all cases sounds very democratic. However, this idea runs up against the fact of well-healed corporations using obstruction. A favourite of some major employers such as Wal-Mart is to dispute every matter, including who is entitled to vote in the election, through every step possible in the labor relations process, even through the courts. As the case drags on for years, many of the original card-signers are gone, and their replacements may have been more carefully chosen to avoid pro-union sentiments. In line with Hudak’s anti-worker stance (he claims to favour "middle-class values"), he also wants a moratorium on any increase in the minimum wage.

Hudak wants to lower taxes and smaller government. But expansion of courts and jails? He criticizes the Liberals for a massive deficit, but his federal brethren have done the same. As one critic put it, "Are you proposing to balance the budget or not? How do you propose to cut the $18 billion required to do it? Where will you get the money for tax cuts?"

But let me give Hudak credit in one area. He has made a positive suggestion regarding welfare. He would allow welfare recipients to keep more of any earnings while they are receiving Ontario Works. By contrast, the Liberals changed the retention rules in a way that rewards some and penalizes others.

All-in-all, if you loved Harris you will probably find a place in your heart for Hudak. Just be ready for more Harris-style tragedies from this similarly populist guy if he manages to get in.

* Reuel S. Amdur is a freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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